This coach is changing young lives.
Mayor Chagai was just six years old when he trekked from his South Sudanese cattle village to Ethiopia, fleeing war. He was one of the 20,000 who became known as Sudan’s ‘Lost Boys’. Mayor then made his way to Kakuma Refugee Camp, Kenya.
After 12 years in the camp, he was resettled in Australia where he has since dedicated himself to upskilling, educating and empowering youth through basketball.
Can you remember a time before war as a child?
As a child, I ended up leaving my family and moving with many other people to a neighbouring country. That journey was miserable. When we reached the destination in Ethiopia, we found help from some people that were organised by UNHCR and the Ethiopians…to settle us in a small refugee camp.
Before we ended up in Kakuma refugee camp, we walked on foot all the way to Kenya. It was a long journey. We could not believe how everybody was going to survive – there was no water, it was just an open space. You ask yourself the question as a child: why am I here? People were dying of hunger all the time until UNHCR, the United Nations and International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) came to the rescue and provided food. It's still a tough memory.
Did you know where your family was at the time?
From the moment that I left home – when I left my mum behind, all my siblings and the entire family – there was no way of hearing from anyone or talking to them. No means for many years. I left my younger siblings and my mother, brothers and the rest of the family somewhere in the cattle camps in the village. I didn't know where I was going. The war, the attacks from the militia, the attacks from government bombardments started hitting people along the way.
What was life in Kakuma refugee camp like for you?
It was a very dry place. There was nothing. We were settled under the trees for two days, and then the UN started bringing in some tents and started putting up roofs. There wasn’t enough food at the time. We stayed there and then slowly everything started coming together.
That’s when sport became something that kids could look up to. It was a relief for us to go out and play football, soccer, volleyball and basketball. There were no real balls, so we were using some rubber balls made out of gloves. Some other people tried putting teams together through UNHCR and then built some outdoor facilities to play the sport. And that's where I got involved in basketball.
How did basketball change your life?
Well, basketball has changed my life because I didn't have my mother as a child all through that journey, and I didn't have any of my close siblings, or dad, or anyone. I was with my auntie. When the memories, hard memories of life started kicking in and I missed my mother, I would go out and sit and cry.
We had some new uniforms provided to us. I’d come straight from school, chuck all my books somewhere, and then run straight to go and play in the sun until the sunset. That became the cycle of my life – from school to the basketball court.
After 12 years in Kakuma refugee camp, you were resettled in Australia. What was that like?
At the time that I came here I was a young adult, around 20 years old. So I again used the social connection of the sport as something to depend on. I started reflecting, asking myself why do I need to use this sport? How can I get the best out of it? So I put myself out there and used whatever skills and knowledge that I have gained as a way to give back and, at the same time, to thank the people that have helped me, people that have guided me to survive and to reach a great country like Australia.
What is Savannah Pride and what does it mean to you?
So, Savannah Pride wasn't just built by me myself. I came with a passion and the love of the game and the social connection interest. I met my colleagues and friends, other Sudanese young guys like me, who had the same vision of getting together and trying to inspire ourselves and play sport.
There was a space where we used to go to called Police Citizens Youth Club (PCYC), in western Sydney. That’s where our first team started. Slowly, that's now transformed into a small group with young kids coming along. I then took my dream further. That's when we added education for the young kids with the purpose that, if they could get a sponsorship through basketball, then they could pursue their education somewhere and utilise the opportunity of the sport. Some kids have ended up in America, some kids have ended up at the Australian Institute of Sport, and some kids ended up in Australian private schools.
The majority of funds raised by Australia for UNHCR are directed to UNHCR’s emergency operations, providing the ready funds and resources to respond quickly and effectively in situations of crisis and disaster.